Nikon’s 43–86mm f3.5 lens

These days, zoom lenses can have a long range. In fact, Nikon currently has a 28-300mm AF-S lens. That’s a significant zoom range. In 1963 Nikon released what would now be considered an odd 43-86mm lens, it’s not their first standard / normal zoom for the F system. The first is reportedly the 35-80mm f/2.8-4. I don’t think this went in to mass production according to the The Thousand and One Night blog on Nikon’s website. It’s worth a read, the writer, Kouichi Ohshita goes into detail about the production of the 43-86 lens.

This lens was released before the AI/AIs mount, I had to mod the lens mount to fit on my FM2n. If you only want to adapt this lens to a mirrorless camera, like the Sony A7 series cameras the mount should not need to be modded for the adapter. If you want to adapt to a Nikon full frame camera like a D600, 700, 750, etc… You will need to have it “AI’d” to avoid damaging the metering tab.

I had this lens sitting on my lens shelf for quite a while. I did shoot a roll of Fomapan in the summer of 2020, mounted on my FM2. Recently, I felt I should spend a few days photowalking with it on my digital camera. I wanted to figure out where this lens would fit into my photography.

Let’s start with the physical characteristics of this lens.

This is a fairly compact zoom. It’s completely metal. The textured zoom/focus ring is metal, at first glance it looks like rubber. Measuring from the flange, the lens is 3 inches (7.6cm) at 43mm and extends to 3.75 inches (9.5cm) at 86mm. The focus ring is very smooth and mine still have very nice damping. The focus throw is quite long at almost 180°.

The push-pull zoom slides very nicely but still has plenty of resistance so it won’t accidently extend while you’re holding it. The front ring rotates when focusing. If you use a polarizer, this is something to keep in mind.

I found that on my FM2, the split prism makes focusing easy. When it was mounted to my Sony A7 with an adapter, the focus ring sits a little too far away from the body.

The interesting thing about this this lens, it has a constant aperture of f3.5 for the whole zoom range. They achieve this by opening the aperture blades more as the lens is extended. Its light transmission is more like a 5.6 though. The bokeh from f3.5 is just fine when focusing close to the subject. Though close focus is just 4 feet.

What I learned from a 43-86mm lens.

The zoom range is limiting. Which can be a good thing. I suppose one would also carry the Nikkor 8.5-25cm f4-4.5 lens in the camera bag.

I can tell you this is not a sharp lens. It’s actually quite soft. Even vintage prime lenses from this era are sharper and have better contrast. Sharpness isn’t everything though. This lens can also exhibit a fair amount of distortion. So keep that in mind if you shoot a lot of buildings with straight lines. In practice, this is a slow going lens.

Another thing about the lens that bothers me, the close-focus distance is just shy of 4 feet (1.2m). I like to get close to some subjects. Flowers are a great example of things I love to photograph up close. There are times when photographers want to capture close details. This lens would not work for that. That may be a deal breaker for a lot of people.

Knowing that this lens doesn’t have a good close focus distance, I brought along a couple of screw on close-focus filters. These aren’t known to have excellent image quality, but for the stuff that I do, they’re fine. It’s an acceptable work-around for me to get closer to small subjects.

There is a little bit of vignetting and some corner softness. In fact, I like a little bit of vignetting, but generally I prefer a bit more corner sharpness than this lens provides.


Would I buy this lens? No.

Would I recommend this lens? Not a chance.

This isn’t a great lens, in my opinion. If you need to shoot a zoom lens, get one with a more usable zoom range and higher quality optics. I don’t hate this lens though. It’s quite fun to use. I like the handling of this lens. It’s a great size and weight and when mounted on a film camera, and it actually looks nice. The optics are its biggest downfall.

I learned while researching this lens, the internet hates it. It seems that every article I read on this lens people complain about how this is one of Nikon’s all time worst lenses. I tend to agree. It’s terrible by the standards that Nikon has set for itself. I think this lens has some charm though. I get what the engineers were trying to achieve with the technology they had at the time. I think they were trying to fill a niche at the time. This lens is from the 1960s and modern lenses are far superior to this one. We don’t shoot these old lenses for their superior optical quality, we shoot them because they are fun.

Photography is about fun and sometimes it’s about creating meaningful work. Gear does matter, but what matters is different for everybody.

Shot on Fomapan 100

Shot on a Sony Full Frame Mirrorless Camera

1 Comment

  • David Murray says:

    I have a book about vintage Nikon film gear and it informs me that the US Navy purchased some of these lenses and used them on the Nikon F camera. However, they were modified by Nikon so the focus was permanently set to infinity. There’s a screw inserted in the focus barrel to retain this capability.

    With regard to the lack of sharpness, at 86mm this makes it a superb portrait lens. One can pay an absolute fortune to have a lens with defocus control. The smart guy just buys this lens.

    A later, 1970s revision was said to be sharper. It had the chapter ring outside the filter mount.

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